Nanny on the Internet
P> Despite all the talk about "getting government off our backs," some conservatives are now trying to have it intrude in our private lives. Ironically, they are using the Internet to promote censorship of the information superhighway and encourage Congress to turn the federal government into an on-line nanny.
On Nov. 30, 1995, the Christian Coalition posted an "Action Alert" on its home page urging its supporters to call, fax and send letters to "the House and Senate members who will decide whether kids will continue to get easy access to hard-core porn" on the Internet "and urge them to support the only proposal that gets tough on porn, the Hyde proposal."
As one of the House members appointed to the Telecommunications Reform Conference Committee, I'm very familiar with legislation sponsored by Rep. Henry Hyde, R-Ill. He wants to establish a penalty of two years in prison and up to $100,000 in fines for anyone sending "indecent" material on the Internet. In addition, he seeks to hold on-line services -- like CompuServe -- and their users criminally liable for the content that is transmitted by such services, even in areas of these services beyond their control.
Yes, his provision gets tough on pornography. But it also trashes the Constitution in the process and curbs free speech in the United States.
First, the "indecency" standard is so vague that it creates an unprecedented criminal situation in which people and organizations will be violating the law for private expressions that are in no sense pornographic. Great works of literature like "Ulysses" or "Catcher in the Rye" could be banned from the Internet, as could individual conversations that include profane comments or deal with mature topics that may be considered unsuitable for children. This is the cyberspace equivalent of book burning.
Second, if members of the Christian Coalition wish to stay on a strictly family friendly diet of reading material, it is their privilege and anyone else's. They shouldn't be able to impose their ideological and moral standards on others or get Washington to do their bidding for them. The Hyde proposal opens the door for the Federal Communications Commission to engage in regulation of the Internet. We don't let the Postal Service read our letters, and we shouldn't let the FCC screen our e-mail either.
Third, high-technology businesses are vulnerable to lawsuits or criminal prosecution under the Hyde proposal. For example, Netscape provides customers with browsing software that enables them to jump from network to network over the World Wide Web. Their company's executives have no control over where their customers go, but under the Hyde plan, they can get thrown in prison if people wander in the wrong direction. This makes as much sense as arresting a telephone operator because someone makes an obscene phone call.
Fourth, successful U.S. government censorship of the Internet is a doubtful proposition. Because the Internet is a private, global network, it's unlikely that censorship by a government agency will accomplish the goals set out by the proponents of federal intrusion.
To get a glimpse of the government nannies in action, one need look no further than the recent decision by CompuServe to block subscriber access to more than 200 computer discussion groups and picture databases. The company was ordered to take this drastic action by a prosecutor in Germany who said the material in question violates German pornography laws and other prohibitions against explicit materials deemed harmful to minors and adults.
On the day they were banned, the Electronic Frontier Foundation posted a list of these newsgroups on its home page. Among the items that CompuServe is being forced to hide from its 4 million users are serious discussions about Internet censorship, thoughtful postings about human rights and marriage and a support group for gay and lesbian youth. Banning this material doesn't protect minors and adults -- but it does have a chilling effect on political and social discussion in a free society.
The German experience should serve as a warning to Congress about the consequences of on-line censorship and government intrusion in our lives. If the Christian coalition and its conservative allies really want to help parents stop their children from reading objectionable material, they should encourage the use of software developed by private companies that will give them the power to determine what is accessible on their computers. According to the Interactive Working Group, America Online and Prodigy offer technologies that allow parents to block their children's access to certain on-line forums. Further, a variety of software developers have produced parental control features for home PCs.
If ever a piece of legislation deserved to be deleted from a democratic political system, the Hyde proposal is it. While exposing children to pornography is a legitimate issue that our society must address in a responsible manner, control of the Internet belongs in the hands of mom and dad, not Uncle Sam.
The author, Anna Eshoo, is a U.S. Democrat representative from California.